Coitus interruptus in Friday's graveyard slot

7th March 2008 at 00:00

What would I say if called upon to give advice to a teacher just starting out? That's easy: never teach in a room with a bed in it. Or, if you can't avoid it, make sure you arrive before the students do.

For some reason, this passed through my mind the other day when I was reading the best and worst lesson features that run each week in the TES magazine. In most cases the scenarios are separate occasions. Strangely, though, for me it involved one and the same class.

Let's start with the bed. For reasons not entirely of my own choice, I was teaching for the department of hospitality and hotel management, otherwise known as the caterers. The bed's official function was to be stripped down and then made up in the approved manner. There are, or course, uses to which beds can be put other than dressing them up in clean linen. That's where the students came in.

As potential Jamie Olivers and Gordon Ramsays, their heads were full of Michelin stars and TV celebrity. In reality though, as craft-level caterers, they were always more likely to end up wearing the rubber apron and wellies than the coveted white hat and jacket.

My job was to teach them English - exactly the sort of subject they had enrolled on a vocational course to avoid. As well as drawing the worst teaching room in the college, I had also been given the worst timetable slot: the graveyard shift, 4-5.30pm.

Why I was late on the day of my bestworse class I can't now remember. And while it wasn't by much, it was enough for two students who had already become a couple to begin a few preliminary moves in the horizontal plane. To put it another way, as I came through the door, they were already well into foreplay.

"Stop!" I shouted. With the departmental bucket of cold water nowhere to be seen, what else could I do?

Reluctantly the "hotties" prised themselves apart, all the while glowering at the passionkiller who had just erupted into the room. The rest of the class weren't happy either: they had been deprived of some great spectator sport and the joys of English were clearly no substitute for The Joy of Sex illustrated.

But coitus interruptus was just the start of my troubles, the hors- d'oeuvre, if you like. The horror of the main course was still to come.

"All right," I said "let's settle down to some work." But the students didn't settle. Instead there was a constant undercurrent of discontent. This time it wasn't aimed at me, but at each other.

Slowly I was becoming aware that this wasn't one class, but four or five. And that each of the component parts hated the guts of the others.

"It's the bloody foreigners," complained one lad, whose parents or grandparents might well have been similarly labelled not so long ago. On the census form he would have ticked "Black British". He was closely supported by three or four others who might tick "grubby pink British", should that category ever appear.

For that moment, at least, the two groups were forming an unholy alliance against the others: four Africans, three Turkish Cypriots, two Pakistanis and a Jordanian who must have been wondering why he ever swapped sunny Amman for suburbia in November.

I was already mentally binning my lesson plan. It was clear that nothing could be achieved with the whole class at each other's throats.

Instead, I went for the high risk strategy: attempting to get them to articulate their grievances in front of one another. If it went well, they might just come to realise that they had more in common than they thought. Of course, if it went the other way, I'd have a bloody riot on my hands.

Miraculously, it worked. After a bit of initial shouting and name calling, they actually began to listen to what one another was saying. By the time 5.30pm came around they weren't exactly singing "All You Need is Love", but there did seem to be, at least, the beginnings of mutual understanding.

As we trooped out of the "hospitality suite", the ultimate accolade came from one of the quietest students in the group, a young woman from Sierra Leone.

"Can we do that all again next week, sir?" she asked.

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